Saturday, August 2, 2014
The British Invaders Blogathon: THE FOUR FEATHERS (1939)
Picking a movie to write about for The British Invaders Blogathon was not easy. There's several obvious choices, to be sure....but I wanted to choose a subject that was undeniably British to the core. The 1939 production of THE FOUR FEATHERS is a perfect example of a Great British film--despite the fact it was made with the talents of three Hungarian brothers and set in North Africa.
THE FOUR FEATHERS is based on a novel by A.E.W. Mason. The novel has been adapted for the screen numerous times, but the 1939 version is usually considered the best one. The 1939 entry was produced by Alexander Korda's London Films, and directed by Alexander's brother Zoltan. Another Korda brother, Vincent, was responsible for the art direction.
London Films and the Kordas were responsible for some of the greatest British films of the 1930s and 1940s. These pictures were almost always of a historical nature, and often involved far-flung settings. It's easy to see why Alexander Korda was drawn to make THE FOUR FEATHERS. Despite his native heritage Alexander Korda was a staunch British Imperialist, and THE FOUR FEATHERS is a salute to the glory and adventure of the British Empire.
The movie begins with the death of General Gordon and the downfall of Khartoum in 1885. Ten years later, an expedition is being formed under General Kitchener to retake the Sudan. On the eve of this expedition British Army Officer Harry Faversham (John Clements) resigns his commission, causing his friends to accuse him of cowardice, and his fiancee (June Duprez) to express her disappointment in him.
Harry decides to make amends by undertaking his own personal secret mission. Disguised as a mute Arab, Harry saves the life of his once-comrade Captain John Durrance (Ralph Richardson), and helps free several British POWs during the Battle of Omdurman.
THE FOUR FEATHERS is an old-fashioned action-adventure story with exotic locations (it was partly filmed in North Africa) and beautiful Technicolor photography. It has a number of epic elements to it--battle scenes, marching armies, cavalry attacks, sweeping vistas, etc. It certainly cannot be called "politically correct", but it is in no way as over-the-top as some other films of its type. There's an understated, matter-of-fact tone to THE FOUR FEATHERS...a British tone, so to speak. The leading men, John Clements and Ralph Richardson, are not exactly Errol Flynn and Clark Gable. The fact that Clements and Richardson are not major action heroes gives the story a touch of realism.
John Clements is fine as Harry Faversham, but it is Ralph Richardson who makes the biggest impression. Richardson's Captain Durrance not only loses his sight due to sunstroke in the desert, he also finds out that the woman he adores does not share the same feelings for him. On the surface Durrance takes these situations in a English stiff-upper-lip manner.....but Richardson is a fine enough actor to make the audience realize through subtle gestures that the character is devastated by his fate.
Another actor that makes a huge impression here is the one and only C. Aubrey Smith, the Grand Old Man of British Cinema. Any classic movie buff will tell you that Smith WAS the screen definition of the British Empire, and having him in THE FOUR FEATHERS just about makes the film "official". Smith spends most of his screen time here recreating the Charge of Balaclava with walnuts and table fruit, one of those fine little moments that enriches a big movie.
THE FOUR FEATHERS was made right before the outbreak of World War II. At the time of the film's production Europe was a powder keg waiting to explode. There's no doubt that Alexander Korda meant for THE FOUR FEATHERS to be something of a message to British audiences--the message being that even if some citizens felt doubt and fear, such as Harry Faversham, they had the ability to rise above their feelings and get the job done when the time came. It's a message that doesn't necessarily have to apply just to war--it can also apply to real life as well.
There's very few films which can say they are more "British" than THE FOUR FEATHERS. Any self-respecting Anglophile has to see the 1939 version at least once.